Soccer | From the Spot

Japanese clubs chase elusive Tokyo cachet

by Dan Orlowitz

A controversial decision by J. League second-division side Machida Zelvia to rebrand as FC Machida Tokyo has dominated water-cooler discussions in the Japanese soccer world this week.

The announcement by club owner CyberAgent last Friday at a fan meeting was met with instant disapproval, both by local supporters and those backing the team’s fellow J2 travelers.

The internet media giant’s decision to align the club’s identity more closely with that of the bustling metropolis in order to increase its marketing value is indicative of the value of the Tokyo brand.

Indeed most of modern Japan, whether it’s politics, business or entertainment, runs through the capital. Yet when it comes to soccer, Tokyo has in many ways remained a sort of vacuum, always on the verge of being filled.

The old national stadium has a special place in the sport’s international history, having hosted the medal matches at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship and 28 years of Toyota Cups, as well as 86 of Japan’s national team games.

That’s on top of dozens of finals for domestic club and school competitions such as the Emperor’s Cup and the annual All-Japan High School Soccer Tournament.

But the decision by the J. League to make Kokuritsu Kyogijo a sort of demilitarized zone when the competition launched in 1993, combined with the lack of a Tokyo team among the Original 10, has prevented any club from truly seizing power in the central 23 wards.

It was the stadium’s neutral status in the league’s early years — and later use as an occasional refuge for clubs across the Kanto area when their home stadiums were unavailable or unable to handle expected capacities — that created peculiarities such as Kashima Antlers’ strong Tokyo following and allowed neighboring Yokohama F. Marinos and Urawa Reds to grow and prosper.

Even when FC Tokyo joined the league 1999 — and struggling Verdy Kawasaki relocated and rebranded as Tokyo Verdy 1969 two years later — the two clubs occupied Ajinomoto Stadium, located 20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku in the western city of Chofu.

FC Tokyo has emerged as the dominant Tokyo team, but neither has become emblematic of Tokyo in the way NPB’s Yomiuri Giants or Tokyo Yakult Swallows have done.

In the 2018 edition of the J. League’s annual fan survey, just 38.1 percent of FC Tokyo’s fans, and 26.9 percent of Verdy’s fans, strongly agreed that J. League clubs make significant contributions to their hometowns — well below the league average of 48 percent and staggeringly below clubs such as Consadole Sapporo (75.2) and Kawasaki Frontale (90.4) which are known for their strong hometown-club relationships.

For clubs such as FC Tokyo and Verdy, one of the main challenges is reconciling their own ambitions to leverage the big-city Tokyo brand with the local communities they have built and nurtured in the suburbs.

They must also face the complexities of Tokyo’s demographics — the metropolis draws new residents from across the country, many of whom bring their hometown loyalties with them.

This means that rather than older fans, any club hoping to capture the 23 wards must market aggressively toward the city’s younger residents — something FC Tokyo have begun this season in cooperation with main sponsor Mixi and have declared they will pursue more aggressively going forward.

Other clubs in the country’s amateur tiers have stated their desire to become downtown Tokyo’s first J. League club, including Kanto League participants Tokyo United and Tokyo 23 FC as well as Tokyo Amateur Soccer League second-division leaders Tokyo City FC.

Potential investors also see yen signs in the capital. Former Antlers owner Nippon Steel refused a buyout offer conditional on the club’s relocation to Tokyo in favor of selling its shares to flea market app operator Mercari this summer.

CyberAgent president Susumu Fujita’s declaration of Zelvia’s rebranding strategy was met with jeers and angry questioning, forcing a postponement of an official announcement from the club as Machida fans continue to demand that their club retain its longtime identity.

Forty minutes away by train, Tokyo still awaits the arrival of a club that, like Italy’s Roma and France’s Paris Saint-Germain, can claim the mantle of the capital and represent it at a global level.

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